How home solar helps everyone

Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity. My own home system shows that.

IPP parody — apologies to Peanuts and the late Charles Shultz

It was a hot and sunny month. … No, this isn’t the opening line of a bad novel; it’s a story about electricity and climate change, and our backyard solar array.

July was indeed hot, which means it was a costly month for electric generation. When the heat index pushes over 100 degrees, and homes and businesses run their air conditioning full tilt, utilities have to purchase more expensive power, from less efficient generating stations, to meet the higher demand. Their costs, and the costs for every consumer, go up.

But here’s the good news. It was a sunny month, which means all those solar arrays at farms and businesses and in people’s back yards were generating power at a great rate. The recently installed array at our home generated 1,749 kilowatt hours of electricity from late June through late July. That was 510 kWh more than we used, for which we received a $14 credit from the utility. (When I use more electricity than I generate, I pay over 12 cents per kWh for the extra; when I generate more than I use, the utility pays me 2.8 cents per kWh.)

But all of that electricity we generated meant that the utility needed to purchase 1,749 kWh less power from the grid, power that was more expensive than average. That savings equates to about the amount of electricity used by two average residential customers in a month.

In the last session of the Iowa Legislature, MidAmerican Energy pushed a bill that would allow them to charge an extra monthly fee to future solar generators, people pretty much like us. That fee would have been enough to make installation of solar unattractive to many, which in turn would have devastated the growing solar installation industry in the state. Their rationale: People like me aren’t paying their share of costs for using the utility’s transmission facilities to sell our home-generated power back to the utility.

Every month I pay a $13.50 “facility charge” regardless of our usage or solar generation. The Iowa Utilities Board, which has to approve all changes in rates proposed by Iowa regulated utilities, is scheduled to undertake a study to see if these kinds of facility charges appropriately reflect the utilities’ cost of accommodating solar generation. But MidAmerican’s proposed bill would have pre-empted the normal rate-setting process with the utilities board and imposed the new fee by legislative fiat before the study was even undertaken to see if any fee was justified.

In pushing their bill, the utility or some unidentified group, sponsored TV advertising to try to get the average Iowan riled up by convincing them that they are subsidizing solar users.

But here’s the thing: Iowa is a summer peaking state. Despite the longer winter heating season, the summer air conditioning season is when electricity usage hits its daily or hourly maximum. All utilities use their most efficient, lower cost generating facilities first, and bring the higher cost facilities on line only when needed. So those high-cost facilities are brought into use just when solar power is doing its thing, when the hours of sunshine are greatest. That reduces the need for that high-cost power, which helps all utility customers.

More importantly, those summer peaks are likely to get worse as climate change worsens. Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity by helping to reverse the trend of global warming. That is good not just for electricity consumers, but for the planet and for our grandchildren.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Ignoring still-serious water threat

Last year, we issued a report on toxic algae and three weeks later the city of Greenfield lost its drinking water. Now we see that the Environmental Working Group has found no improvement. How long before another town faces the same problem Greenfield did?

Iowa detail of map in report showing water test results.

About a year ago the Iowa Policy Project released a report on cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies and recreational waters. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows things have not gotten better.

Microcystin and other cyanotoxins are still not regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus, few drinking water systems test for them. These very dangerous natural chemicals are still on EPA’s candidate list for regulated contaminants but they have made it no further.

When it comes to beach monitoring for the same substances, Iowa still does not use the EPA’s recommended action level and prefers to use on more than twice as high, making any notice to beachgoers of the presence of microcystin less likely.

In high amounts cyanotoxins can make you sick and cause serious long term damage to human health. There are many reports of dogs dying after playing in ponds and licking their fur after.

The EWG report also found further evidence of what we reported last year in our report.

“The late summer months are usually the peak of the algae bloom season, though recent outbreaks are starting earlier and lasting longer. Increased rainfall and rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis are exacerbating the issue.”[1]

Later peaks in blooms and toxins means that the beach monitoring system will not see them since it ends in Iowa on Labor Day. True fewer people will be at beaches, but water supplies are vulnerable later into the year and no one is looking for microcystin in October.

Three weeks after IPP released its report in June 2018, the city of Greenfield, Iowa, closed its drinking water system for about a week because microsystin got in finished water. One wonders if in another three weeks after Thursday’s release we might see another town in the same predicament.

[1] Environmental Working Group, Aug. 8, 2019: “Report: Toxins From Algae Outbreaks Plague Hundreds of Lakes in 48 States,” https://www.ewg.org/release/report-toxins-algae-outbreaks-plague-hundreds-lakes-48-states

David Osterberg is former director and currently lead environmental researcher for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Improve water quality funding equitably

Expand existing state programs to improve waters and overall balance in Iowa tax system.

Iowa has an opportunity to advance equity while improving water quality. The constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly passed in 2010 gave us the option to fund water quality programs with the sales tax, but it’s only a starting place, and we need to explore more equitable funding solutions.

The sales-tax option needs to be paired with options that enhance equity in the way we fund all public services. A comprehensive approach adds other sources — even as we recognize that Iowa policy makers have refused the voters’ clearly stated desire for action.

A new IPP report offers policy options to improve water quality in an equitable way. Iowa voters, in a 2010 statewide referendum, showed their willingness to raise the sales tax in order to fund water quality efforts. The trust fund they authorized remains empty today, nine years later.

As we noted in an April 2019 report, Iowa water quality funding is inadequate.[1] Some will claim new water-quality funding passed in 2018, but it was at best window dressing. New programs had no new revenue source and added little to the mainly federal nutrient reduction funding that exists now.

The sales-tax option remains on the table and is promoted by serious advocates for action. The challenge is to find a way to offset the impact of a sales-tax increase on lower- and moderate-income households. Already, those lower-income families pay the most of any income group, as a percentage of their income, on sales tax. This drives the overall regressive nature of Iowa’s state and local tax system.[2] Analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows why a tax on purchases hits lower income families harder (see graph). Lower-income families spend most of what they earn, and they spend a large share of it on goods and services that are subject to the state sales tax. This is less the case the higher you go on the income scale.

Basic RGB

 

How to fix it? We see two immediate options using existing programs: Boost the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to help working families, and expand Disabled and Senior Citizen Property Tax Credit and Rent Reimbursement Program.

How to pay for it? Use at least part of the revenue from a 1-cent sales tax increase. The constitutional amendment directs three-eights of the first cent to the clean water and recreation trust fund. The key is what happens with the other five-eighths.

According to ITEP data, increasing the state EITC to 20.5 percent of the federal credit (from the current 15 percent) would fully offset that average $124 yearly sales-tax increase for a working family eligible for the EITC. The Rent Reimbursement program can contribute for other low-income families. Those two steps — EITC and Rent Reimbursement — would cost an estimated $30 million,[3] only a small share of the “extra” sales-tax revenue from a 1-cent increase

Taxing the polluter is another policy option for addressing a broader equity concern. Fertilizer used in the agricultural sector is the source of the contamination, yet it is exempt from the general Iowa sales tax. Removing the fertilizer exemption would bring a substantial source of water quality funding: about $110 million annually.[4]

In an already tax system favoring the highest earners, raising the sales tax is not a preferred option. But it can be improved and turned into an opportunity to both improve services and the overall balance in Iowa’s tax system. Those interested in both equity and clean water could embrace that opportunity.

[1] David Osterberg and Natalie Veldhouse, “Lip Service: Iowa’s Inadequate Commitment to Clean Water.” April 2019. Iowa Policy Project. http://iowapolicyproject.org/2019docs/190424-WQfunding.pdf

[2] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “Iowa: Who Pays? 6th Edition.” October 2018. https://itep.org/whopays/iowa/

[3] EITC: $124 for each of the 209,000 taxpayers who receive this credit equals $25,916,000. Renters’ credit: $124 for each of the 32,000 who receive the credit equals $3,968,000. Total about $30 million for the two programs.

[4] $1,845,469,000 X 6 % = $ 110,728,140. The total in the 2017 Census of Agriculture was much smaller than the 2012 figure $2,587,059,000.

 

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Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa: Better sorry than safe

The Iowa DNR says you as a beachgoer have no need to know if toxins in the water might have reached a level that the U.S. EPA believes demands caution.

Iowa environmental officials are taking an unusual position for people charged with protecting the citizens of the state: “Better sorry than safe.”

No, that’s probably not the message you heard from Mom or Dad.

But it is the effect of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) position not to follow tougher rules on water quality to guide warnings to beachgoers.

DNR has decided that if toxins in water reach a risk level suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as right for a warning, that is on a need-to-know basis, and you as a beachgoer have no need to know before you dive in, or before your child or dog splashes around, maybe drinks a little of the lake in the process.

Iowa is sticking with a more relaxed standard, of 20 micrograms of the microsystin toxin per liter, instead of the EPA-recommended 8 microgram level.

The Gazette story by Erin Jordan comes almost a year to the day since an Iowa Policy Project report by Carolyn Buckingham, Mary Skopec and myself showed how little the state is doing to address increasing problems with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa waters. The report noted DNR testing had shown increasing numbers of beach advisories from 2009 through 2016, and increases in the number of lakes with advisories against swimming, due to microsystin levels — 17 of the 39 monitored beaches (graph below). And that was recorded under the weaker standard of 20 micrograms per liter.

Microsystin advisories for Iowa lakes, 2006-16Climate change and increased nutrient runoff contribute to increased algal blooms at the heart of the problem. If the number of advisories and lakes affected were to rise even more because of tougher standards, that likely would drive more Iowans to push for changes in policy to address the causes.

Safe might not be the top priority.

Sorry.

David Osterberg is lead environmental researcher and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Water funding exposes shallow commitment

Recent initiative fails to meet needs to improve Iowa water quality

Voters have indicated their support for increasing funding to improve water quality in Iowa, earmarking part of the next sales tax increase for clean water. So far, the protected trust fund for outdoor recreation and water quality remains empty.

Our latest water quality report addresses these issues:

  • What has been the state’s spending commitment to water quality over the past 15 years?
  • How much of state and federal dollars goes to reduce nutrient pollution in Iowa?
  • How much spending is needed to make meaningful water quality progress?
  • How can the state raise adequate revenue to make an impact?

We identified 16 primarily state-level programs that fund water quality improvements. Funding in the most recent year hasn’t even reached 2008 to 2009 levels.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), implemented in 2013, was created to reduce nutrient pollution that creates a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy was advertised as a new commitment by the state to reduce Iowa’s pollution of our own rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the NRS, we find that state water quality spending has dropped off and struggled to return to pre-2008 recession levels.

190424-WQ-Fig1

The Water Resources Coordinating Council is tasked with overseeing NRS progress, and measures the financial resources dedicated to reducing nutrient pollution from the state of Iowa to the Mississippi River system. The most recent NRS report shows $512 million was spent in state and federal dollars on Iowa nutrient reduction in 2017.[1] However, the state is largely riding the wave here; the real money comes from federal funding.

While it was assumed that adopting the NRS would increase Iowa’s commitment to water quality, it did not — though at the same time pollution has increased. Recent research indicates Iowa’s share of nutrient loading into the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds actually increased between 2000 and 2016.[2]

In 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that appropriates $282 million to water quality efforts over the next 12 years.[3] This gesture compares poorly even to existing — and lacking — government water quality spending. Iowa is nowhere near to what is needed.

How much money does it really take to make a meaningful impact on Iowa water quality? The NRS document, written mainly by Iowa State University, estimated the cost of reducing nonpoint contamination under three scenarios. All were in the billions of dollars.

The Iowa Soybean Association estimates for nutrient reduction costs in just one river basin, the Lime Creek Watershed,[4] implies a statewide need of $1.4 billion a year for about 15 years. These estimates demonstrate the inadequacy of the 2018 spending bill.

Current investments are not resulting in discernible improvements in Iowa’s water quality. Two options available for generating the amount of revenue needed include removing the exemption of fertilizer used in agriculture and taxing it like other commodities.

A second option is fully funding the environmental trust that voters approved in a statewide referendum in 2010. Estimated revenue from either of these sources would bring more than $100 million per year. We need to tap new sources to make our state commitment to water quality equal to the task. Until then, we are only paying lip service to the problem.

[1] Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report. Page 9.

http://www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/NRS2018AnnualReportDocs/INRS_2018_AnnualReport_PartOne_Final_R20190304_WithSummary.pdf

[2] Christopher Jones, Jacob Nielsen, Keith Schilling, & Larry Weber, “Iowa stream nitrate in the Gulf of Mexico.” April 2018. PLOS. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195930&type=printable

[3] Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Reynolds signs water quality bill, her first as governor.” January 2018. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/31/reynolds-signs-water-quality-bill-her-first-governor/1082084001/

[4] Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Programs & Services, “Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Plan: A roadmap for improved water quality, sustained agricultural productivity & reduced flood risk. N.D. https://www.iasoybeans.com/search/?q=lime+creek

 

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Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Courageous words about ‘timid’ funding

Even a farm group may face consequences for daring to challenge Iowa’s poor funding of water quality efforts.

Even farm groups dare not question the timid funding of water quality

Recently the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported a slapdown of the Iowa Soybean Association by the Iowa Legislature.

Thanks to reporting by Erin Jordan of The Gazette, we learn now that a year ago, legislators were angered by comments from Iowa’s main soybean group that Governor Kim Reynolds’ first bill as governor — new money for water quality — was “timid.”

Partly because of that remark, the Gazette reported, legislators stuck back against the group by taking $300,000 in state funds away. Ironically, those funds had gone for research on water quality improvement.

In her article, Soybean group pays price for calling water bill ‘timid’, Jordan reported:

The Soybean Association had received $400,000 a year in state funding for the On-Farm Network, a program that helps farmers gather data to better manage nitrate fertilizer application on their cornfields. More precise application means less money spent on fertilizer and less excess nitrate washing into lakes and waterways.

IPP used some of the data collected by the Iowa Soybean Association in our recent report on water quality funding by the state. We called our paper “Lip Service” since that is about all Iowans are getting from their top leaders in response to widespread concerns about water quality in the state.

The Iowa Soybean Association research was very good. We found it to be the best out there on what improving nutrient pollution from agriculture was likely to cost. Now, that research has been curtailed because that organization had the temerity to tell the truth about the big talk and little money the state gives to improve water quality in the state.

To read our report or a one-page executive summary, visit the Iowa Policy Project website at http://www.iowapolicyproject.org.

David Osterberg is lead environment and energy researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, which he co-founded in 2001.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Bill Stowe: Water quality hero

Bill Stowe’s courageous fight for clean water lives on.

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Bill Stowe speaks at IPP’s 15th anniversary event in September 2016. (Photo: Lance Coles)

Bill Stowe, dead at 60. The average American male born in 1959 should live about another 10 years. But there was nothing average about Bill Stowe.

The average male does not get three advanced degrees from three different institutions. The average American, male or female, does not take on the strongest and most powerful to change public debate, and force accountability where it was lacking.

Bill ran the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), the largest supplier of clean drinking water in Iowa. It was a surface water system. That means it had to deal with the serious pollution that unrestrained agricultural practices put into Iowa waters — a costly and unsustainable proposition.

Realizing he could not continue to pass on the costs of treating that water to his customers alone, he took action — courageous action in an agricultural state — to either get the polluters to stop, or at least to pay for the problems they are causing.

The case of the Des Moines Water Works vs. three Iowa counties with drainage districts that were some of the main polluters of the Raccoon River went to federal court. It scared agricultural organizations like the various state Farm Bureau federations.

As Stowe and DMWW fought “dark money”-funded interests in court, he gained both foes who favor the status quo and allies who shared either the lawsuit’s goals or the desire to help Iowans see what big industry was up to. Others joined the fight, including one small-town journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize, and activists who keep his fight alive today.

Bill lost his case in court, but pushed water quality more squarely into Iowa’s political and policy spotlight, forcing politicians including Terry Branstad to concede a need to do something — even though their actions have fallen short.

Bill Stowe was generous with his time and talked to groups about treating water to make it safe. He taught a class of mine.

160314-Stowe-DO classThe picture above was from three years ago when we visited the treatment works he served. He spoke often to groups about his passion for clean water all around the state — including as the featured speaker for the 15th anniversary of our organization in 2016.

When IPP considers what papers to investigate we often ask knowledgeable people around the state for thoughts on what would be helpful to better inform public debate. Bill had suggestions for our latest series of reports on water quality.

When IPP researcher Natalie Veldhouse and I met with him and his DMWW colleague Laura Sarcone in November, they had good suggestions that helped us in the development of our latest paper. When I sent a copy of that paper to Laura for her thoughts, I did not know that Bill was already in hospice.

Bill died too soon. His fight for clean water remains important for all Iowans.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is co-founder, former executive director and lead environment and energy researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org